Challenger institutions focus on problem-based learning

Lynette Ryals discusses the keys to scaling an immersive learning approach

Lynette Ryals is pro-vice chancellor and chief executive at Cranfield University

We know there’s no convincing pedagogical argument for the lecture format. Instead, the sector has stuck with lectures because of history and the need for large-scale delivery.

The growth in levels of participation in higher education – up from 8.4 per cent in 1970 to 33 per cent by 2000 – turned lecturing into a scalable means of delivering knowledge to large numbers of students.

New challenger HE institutions are trying to scrap the reliance on lectures. There’s obviously a need and a market for “deep learning” among both fee-paying students who want to be career-ready, and employers looking for recruits with skills and the know-how to “do things” from day one. There’s still a great difference between “knowing about” something and “knowing how to do” something.

The question, of course, is how the planned problem-based learning approach – structured around group work exploring solutions to real-life challenges and case studies – can be made scalable and viable financially.

How to scale

We think we have the answers. The new arrivals, MK:U in Milton Keynes (Cranfield University), NMITE in Hereford (New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering), LIS (The London Interdisciplinary School), and TEDI-London (the design engineering collaboration between Arizona State, King’s College London and UNSW Sydney), believe we are on to a pedagogic model and learning environment that delivers a more engaging experience, affordably.

The new HEIs argue that problem-based learning (PBL) can be scaled to levels comparable to a moderate-size lecture. The five keys to scalability are commitment, organisation, interaction, technology, and student engagement.

Commitment: PBL isn’t just one strand of activity offered by the challenger HEIs, alongside traditional forms of delivery. Instead, it is core to the institution’s offering, and the basis for staff recruitment and structures.

Organisation: There might be five students per PBL group (although experienced PBL tutors can work with larger groups), with each academic team guiding between eight and 10 groups. The academic team consists of a lead academic supported by assistant academics/mediators who are conversant with the subject and the PBL approach – sometimes even graduates from the programme itself. The academic introduces the session content and uses the remaining time available to them as the “mentor in the centre”, sometimes running bite-size “sessions within a session”. The academic team checks each group’s progress, bearing in mind that there might be multiple routes to a solution rather than pushing everyone to take the same path.

Interaction: What really matters, say the new HEIs, is interaction. Students are coming together in their groups to learn by tackling problems supplied from the institution’s networks of employers. Messy, thorny problems that involve an ongoing, difficult, and sometimes daunting journey. So rather than a lecture or seminar format where learners are sitting back and told all about the landscape, the nature of the learning mountain, and challenges involved, students are given active guidance as and when it’s needed. They need to use the equipment provided to find their own route and undertake the journey themselves. In this way, the experience is much closer to that of employees in a workplace, a combination of managed development and empowerment to take on responsibilities and demonstrate capability.

Technology: Whilst PBL doesn’t rely on technology to deliver the content in the classroom, it is a useful tool to point students towards particular content for their initial research, to check their progress, and to facilitate tutor interaction as well as some lively group-to-group competition. For the mentor in the centre, IT can be used to monitor student progress and capture data and reports from groups that might be compiled into data banks for future use in formative assessments.

Student engagement: In PBL, tutors encourage and expect students to learn from each other. TEDI-London notes that having a diverse range of students from different backgrounds helps them learn from each other and therefore with scale. Students are more self-reliant and they have more space to work independently, which reduces the time needed from mediators and assistants. Peer learning and the need to work together towards a shared goal acts as a powerful motivation to structure unsupervised time. There’s more engagement. And, at the same time, students are having to develop important personal skills around team working, time management, communication, and leadership.

Active strategy

For academics, PBL is a different kind of challenge. They can’t follow the one route suggested by a set textbook. In PBL, the problem evolves and academics need to be able to go along the changing routes taken by groups. Subject material, ideas, and support have to be stitched together in real time to make sure that there’s progress to a solution.

The LIS team says that the problem provides a shared context in which academics can discuss the relevance of student choices and help them improve their judgment. MK:U believes that there is as much potential here for teacher-led research as for the classical research-led teaching.

The central issue in scaling PBL, according to leaders at NMITE, is to understand exactly what value is being delivered in any one part of the experience. For example, if the initial problem brief is given to students ahead of time, allowing for a period of digestion, then contact time can be used more profitably in exploring issues with the business partner that set the problem. Instead of passive reception of questions, the time spent in digging into problems is, in itself, a valuable part of learning and of developing employability skills.

Challenger institutions are starting small with PBL and evolving. But, as they scale up in coming years, they will be looking to evolve a new breed of academic, possibly opening up more opportunities for experienced specialists in business to move into academia.

Traditional academics will have the chance to stretch and test themselves – and become more attractive to business and other organisations as consultants and board members. Meanwhile, the sector itself will be able to show how it’s moving on, adapting, experimenting, and increasing its relevance.

2 responses to “Challenger institutions focus on problem-based learning

  1. The pedagogical argument for lectures is far stronger than the pedagogical argument for problem based learning:

    Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86. 10.1207/S15326985EP4102_1 (open access).

    Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, volume 12, issue 2, pages 257-285.
    https://doi.org/10.1016/0364-0213(88)90023-7

    1. Cognitive load is an important theory, but is often misused in critiques of problem-based learning. There is a difference between PBL as an overarching approach to curriculum and pedagogy – designing teaching and learning around a problem – and minimal guidance in teaching concepts. Explicit teaching of concepts, including through short lectures and demonstrations, can (and should) be part of a larger problem-based approach.

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